Rejection experienced in an intimate relationship can trigger unexpected aggression with sometimes fatal consequences. A working woman in Pune was stabbed to death in her home when she spurned the marriage proposal of a good friend. Another 17 year-old girl from Hadapsar was stabbed in the stomach for rebuffing the overtures of a relative. Why would a man assault a woman after professing his love to her? Many instances of aggression arise from events where an individual perceives he is not sufficiently loved or valued in the context of an intimate relationship.
People differ in their readiness to perceive and react to rejection. The desire to belong is a basic human need. Some maintain equanimity while others over-react in ways that harm their relationships and their well-being. Hostility and aggression are among the most destructive reactions to rejection. Low self-esteem, depression, jealousy, self-neglect and a breakdown of daily routine are other painful outcomes of being rejected. Social rejection is the strongest predictor of violence in adolescents (Surgeon General 2001). This association between rejection and aggression is also repeatedly shown in social experiments.
Rejection triggers behaviours internalised during interactions with parents during infancy and early childhood. Based on these interactions children form certain expectations regarding the satisfaction or rejection of their needs. When childhood needs are met sensitively and consistently the child forms secure expectations. When childhood needs are met with rejection the child forms a pattern of insecure expectations involving doubts and anxieties. These repeated early interactions determine the individuals attachment style - the communication pattern exhibited in close relationships.
Aggression is first learned during infancy as a response to separation from the mother. The purpose is to reunite with the mother and discourage future separation. Adults who are socially immature respond to separation from a loved one with shouting, crying, and throwing or smashing objects. Again the purpose is to protect the relationship. Men with a fearful or preoccupied attachment style are more likely to be jealous, violent and abusive in intimate relationships. This tendency to violence increases when the relationship is threatened. Males with a fearful attachment style are anxious about gaining their partners approval and at the same time are fearful of being rejected by them. These males are more likely to attribute negative intent to their partners. This combination of internal conflict and external blame makes men with a fearful attachment style respond to rejection with aggression (Leary 2006).
Jealousy is the precursor of aggression in many close relationships. Jealousy occurs when people believe that another person does not sufficiently value their relationship because of the presence or intrusion of a third party. Men who are abusive have higher interpersonal jealousy. Abused women and the men who abuse them report jealousy as the most common precursor to violence. Among both men and women, intimate violence is often provoked by real or imagined infidelity (Leary 2006). We have already discussed jealousy in the context of the family.
Rejection-sensitivity is a personality characteristic associated with aggression elicited by rejection in love and romance. People high in rejection sensitivity (Downey 1996)
- Anxiously expect rejection by significant people in their lives.
- Readily perceive intentional rejection in the ambiguous or insensitive behaviour of their new partner.
- Over-react to rejection
Gender differences (Downey 1996) dictate that men with high rejection sensitivity manifest jealousy in the face of perceived rejection. Their consequent attempts to control their love object’s interactions with other males leads to further dissatisfaction in the relationship. When they are not successful in this they respond with rage - the common fallout of jealousy. Females react to perceived rejection with hostility and withdrawal of support. Both gender reactions lead to dissatisfaction with the partner and subsequent breakup of the relationship. If taken to an extreme, the jealousy in the rejection sensitive male can lead to fatal consequences for object of his affections.
Despite these negative experiences rejection sensitive people are repeatedly drawn to intimate relationships. The new relationship is viewed as an opportunity for acceptance. Initially they work hard to ingratiate themselves with their partner. However, the inevitable transient negativity, insensitivity, or preoccupation triggers the deeply ingrained anxieties and expectations of rejection. The person over-reacts to minor and ambiguous signals from the love object and starts the cycle of dissatisfaction in the relationship.
Rejection sensitivity is deeply ingrained in the personality. An intimate partner or a therapist can alter the expectancies and anxieties about rejection. It is possible for the rejection sensitive person to develop better conflict resolution skills. But only when there is a high degree of motivation in the rejection-sensitive person and a skilled, and nurturing partner.
- Özlem Ayduk, Anett Gyurak, and Anna Luerssen. Individual differences in the rejection-aggression link in the hot sauce paradigm: The case of Rejection Sensitivity. J Exp Soc Psychol. 2008 May 1; 44(3): 775–782. doi: 10.1016/j.jesp.2007.07.004
- Downey G, Feldman SI. Implications of rejection sensitivity for intimate relationships. J Pers Soc Psychol. 1996 Jun;70(6):1327-43.
- Leary MR, Twenge JM, Quinlivan E. Interpersonal rejection as a determinant of anger and aggression. Pers Soc Psychol Rev. 2006;10(2):111-32.
- Office of the Surgeon General. (2001). Youth violence: A report of the Surgeon General. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.